Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s appointment of Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel made it past the opposition of many Senate Republicans Tuesday.
On the last day the GOP-controlled chamber could reject Hertel’s appointment under the Michigan Constitution, the Senate voted in support of the DHHS director with an 18-16 vote.
Four Republicans, Sens. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), Jim Stamas (R-Midland), Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).
Seven senators — Sens. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.), Jim Runestead (R-White Lake), Dale Zorn (R-Ida), Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.), Lana Theis (R-Brighton) and Roger Victory (R-Georgetown Twp.) — urged Senate Advice and Consent Chair Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) to reject Hertel earlier this month.
Although the House doesn’t play a role in approving or rejecting appointments, 25 Republican representatives also signed onto a letter to Nesbitt asking that Hertel be rejected.
In a statement following Tuesday’s vote, Shirkey said his yes vote “does not reflect agreement with her decisions as deputy director and now as director of MDHHS, but rather my belief that her background and expertise make her qualified for the job.”
“To her credit, in the short time since her appointment, I have had more conversations with Elizabeth than I did over two years with her predecessor [Robert Gordon]. That communication with the Legislature must continue if we are to repair the damage done by the incompetence of the previous leadership,” Shirkey said. “In our conversations, I have made it clear to Elizabeth that I will continue to push for an end to the nonsensical loophole that allows the department director to control and harm the lives and livelihoods of Michiganders for months or even years on end.”
Shirkey was apparently referring to DHHS epidemic orders that have shut down indoor dining and in-person learning for high schools and colleges to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many restrictions have been lifted and Whitmer said last week she does not have plans to reinstate any, despite a sharp rise in cases.
Hertel, who previously served as senior chief deputy director for administration for the DHHS, was appointed by Whitmer in January after Gordon’s abrupt resignation. The reason for his resignation has been under wraps, but it was revealed earlier this month that the former director’s separation agreement included a $155,000 severance and a confidentiality clause.
Last week, Whitmer announced that the confidentiality clause had been dropped, but there are unanswered questions about Gordon’s departure.
Hertel previously worked for Michigan House Republicans and served under administrations from both parties.
Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing), who is Elizabeth Hertel’s husband, abstained from voting, saying it was “the right thing to do.”
“This will be the hardest vote that I will ever skip in this body,” Curtis Hertel said during a floor speech Tuesday. “And it’s not because it concerns my wife, who is the love of my life and the mother of my children, my best friend. That’s the reason why I should recuse myself from this vote. And I will do the right thing. The difficult part is that she is by far the most qualified person that could be nominated.”
Despite getting enough votes in support of Hertel to avoid a rejection, a number of Republicans spoke out about the director, mostly noting concerns about the department under Gordon’s leadership.
During a February Senate Advice and Consent hearing, Hertel did not list mistakes the Whitmer administration made in handling the pandemic, which Republicans brought up on the floor Tuesday.
In her no vote explanation, Johnson said she “will not vote to confirm a director for our state’s health department who cannot admit that mistakes were made, nor will I vote to confirm a health director who continues to obscure the data her department is using to make very important decisions.”
Nesbitt said that he believes Hertel is “the most pragmatic choice that the governor could probably select,” but went on to say that he thinks “the people in Michigan do deserve a fresh start” at the DHHS.
In response to the Senate’s vote in support of Hertel, Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said, “The governor is excited to have Elizabeth Hertel as the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Director Hertel has dedicated her career to protecting Michiganders’ public health, and her leadership will be critical as we continue tackling the public health challenges facing our state.”